Where did Stafford Beer go?

Yes, I know he is dead. But where did he go? Over the years from him practicing, where did ‘he’ go? Let me explain…

I am a qualified Systems Practitioner. I have a wealth of experiential and academic learning in the field of systems thinking. Something I use a lot is Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model. I know it technically. I use it in my work and have done for many years. I learnt it as part of my BSc and then my MSc. Never, during my formative years, did I pick up from those more experienced than me, the extent of deep spirituality and love which formed part of Stafford Beer himself. What I did pick up was an elitist atmosphere of those who ‘knew’ the model and those who were deemed ‘enthusiastic amateurs’ by others. They knew what the model was, but did not know how to use it. It was all about the model. Nothing but the model.

But, with every model comes a person. With every approach comes a person. There is one thing that I have learnt in my years as a Systems Practitioner is that people love to take an approach and erase the person behind it. However, it is the person and their values, their ethics, their thoughts, their deep feelings and ethos in life that makes an approach. Not a model drawn on a piece of paper.

A number of years ago I realised just how versatile the Viable System Model was when I used it for continuing development of myself, as part of an OU PDP course. I then turned my use of the Viable System Model into my systems thinking approach, Creating the Conditions for Change©. This approach is very ethically driven. It aims to bring humanity back into our working lives. It respects individuals and all of the values and gifts they bring with them to the party. It focusses on the people in the situation and it came directly from my learning from using the Viable System Model. One of the words that comes up most often when I engage with groups using the Creating the Conditions for Change© approach is the word ‘love’. Over and over again. This is to do with how I practice and encourage others to ‘be’ in a situation.

So, when sitting in a Metaphorum webinar this month hearing Vanilla Beer talk about the spiritual side of Stafford Beer, I believed that we had somewhat lost the man behind the approach as the years had gone by. Over the last year, I have had a couple of people approach me who know my work and have said that they knew Stafford Beer and they believed he would have liked where I was going with this work. I cannot say whether I agree with them or not as I never knew him myself. However, I do think we have lost the spiritual side of the Viable System Model somewhat and I believe my work is reinvigorating that side of things.

In the Metaphorum conference, Vanilla Beer said, ‘You cannot point to the VSM and say ‘love’.’ On the contrary, I think you absolutely can.

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Updating my own personal system for 2023

Those who follow my practice will know that I use Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model (VSM) in most of my work. I also use it to develop me as a system, using the VSM at the scale of the individual. I have been doing this since 2011, when I learnt how to use the VSM for my own professional development, as part of an Open University course.

Last year I recorded a video of how I use the Viable System Model on myself to show a group of students a different way of engaging with the VSM. I have updated the video for 2023, as my personal system changes iteratively, as most systems do. Here is the link to my 2023 update https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDvGMm6d02U

An update on the System 3* function in the Creating the Conditions for Change approach

When I incorporated a ‘system health check’ element into my Creating the Conditions for Change© consultancy approach, using insights from the Viable System Model, it opened up people’s perspectives to things that were vitally important to their team/ service/ organisation wellbeing and yet were going unnoticed.

The action cards in my consultancy approach (which are questions and prompts about important things to consider) are related to things such as the collaborative and adaptive capabilities of the team/ service/ organisation in focus. Some of the seemingly invisible elements that can bring things together and encourage effectiveness if working well.

Drawing on my blog from 2021, based on work from several years prior, I will remind you of some of the things I monitor for when looking for system health. These are elements that I devised based on my work with Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model, which has been a stable in my practice for many years now.

Carrying out the health checks means looking at (amongst many other things):

  • If internal structures are hindering rather than supporting the work
  • If information is being used as a means to gain power in a situation or is it being used to nourish a situation
  • If reciprocation is happening across boundaries
  • If co-creation is happening across boundaries
  • How flexible processes and people are. Can they adapt, pivot and make change in appropriate timescales
  • Can a deep dive be carried out quickly enough when required

My action cards that support my consultancy approach give options for all scales in the system, from individual to organisation and beyond. My workshops also give a sense of the skills required to be a system health check monitor.

It was examination of what the viable system model system 3* could look like, over the course of what is now over 13 years in my work, that encouraged me to make it one of the priorities in my Creating the Conditions for Change consultancy approach.

I have done significant work with it in the NHS in the past, in my roles as Strategy and Commissioning Manager, Commissioning and Transformation Manager and Assistant Quality Assurance Manager and in my private sector roles as Senior Operations Manager and Production Manager in GMP environments, which focussed on quality and improvement.

My work nowadays is also in place-based systems change, which also benefits from the same approach. The versatility of my approach is far beyond what I ever expected when I developed it. It is an approach that is now being widely experimented with by others and my website archive of my past reflections has been viewed heavily by visitors from all over the world. It took many years of deep exploration to get the approach to where it is now and I am currently working on developing it even further. It is essentially a way of using the Viable System Model as a learning system.

Authentic approaches can take time to mature, especially if truly based on insights and learning from your own genuine work.

Gently as we go

You cannot see my world. It is invisible, you see. It sits within the nuance of my own inner thinking and creating. It comes from the depths of my epistemology. My work life. My home life. My wider family life. It comes from the good times and the bad. It comes from my creative moments and my times of despair. It comes from years of working. Years of training. It comes from deep personal work, pushing through times of love and grief. It is nothing that you have experienced like I have. So, you cannot see what I see, as you are not me.

So, how do I support you when you want to grow if you cannot see what I see and I cannot see what you can see? Well, it’s gently as we go. One step at a time. One lens at a time. One perspective at a time. One re-framing at a time. We cannot jump into a huge approach without the ‘gently as we go’ guiding us both through framing, using different lenses, challenging boundaries and more often than not, challenging ourselves.

‘Why did I not see that straight away’ you ask. Because you were not sensitized to it and it is gently as we go. ‘But why gently as we go?’ You ask. Because to turn your world upside down by shaking your perspective, your perception, your framing and the lens you use to see the world all at the same time would leave you with a deep sense of confusion, disorientation, loss, in some cases shame and guilt. My job is to guide you, not destroy you. Serve you, not harm you. Support you, not throw you over a cliff.

So, particularly when I am coaching you in systems thinking, it is gently as we go……

For systems thinking support and coaching: pauline@systemspractitioner.com

A reset of the mind

I have recently returned from a holiday on Tenerife. The holiday was brilliant, by the way, but not the reason I’m writing today. I went on holiday because I was tired of what is happening in the UK. Exhausted by our plummeting humanity, the selfishness, the greed, the division. I needed to walk away from it for a while.

I didn’t know why at the time, because my brain was too tired to go through the full processing of my thoughts, but I had an overwhelming desire to sit at the window seat on the plane. I wanted to see the land, the sea, the sky, the clouds. I wanted to experience our world without the people. From up there, looking down, I couldn’t see them, and I wanted, no craved, this perspective. That’s not at all strange, I hear you say. It was for me, though. I am generally a bit scared of heights. I get disorientated. I particularly don’t like when the plane is climbing and the only direction I can see is up. But this time, I craved to see it with a desperation I could not explain. I had to see it, no matter what. I thought about that more than the holiday.

I had been contemplating our plight in the UK and have been somewhat overwhelmed by the direction we are going and to a point, I felt helpless. Then I came across the following quote in the book Perseverance, by Margaret Wheatley:

‘Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.’ – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I had read the book, ‘Women who run with the wolves’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estes a number of years ago. Both me and my sister shared it between us. At that moment, I remembered how much wisdom we read…..and then forget. It helped me regain focus in this overwhelming world. It made me remember the compassion in the work we do. The conditions we model to support each other to learn and grow.

On my flight home, my mind was becoming more relaxed. I stepped on the plane with a whole new feeling that I did not recognise. I thought to myself, ‘Do you trust this flight crew and the pilot?’ I decided that yes, I did. I also realised that should there be an issue with the plane there would be a whole group of people dedicated to keeping us all alive. I realised that we all die, so why not enjoy this flight while I can. My fear started to dissolve.

I saw the world from above. I can tell you that I did not move my eyes from the world outside of that window for a full 4.5 hours. I looked into the sky with no fear at all. I saw the most beautiful planet. I felt free and liberated.

My systems thinking journey is taking a new turn. I have been working in a field lately that was not necessarily my choosing. One of social change. I kind of fell into it, quite accidentally. That said, I have done some very powerful and useful work, particularly over the last two years. It was punishing, though. Draining. Working with people who are all feeing what I was feeling when I left the UK on holiday. Working with that every day and supporting others on their journey takes its toll. It has been long hours, filled with emotion. The systems thinking and systems change journey that people are just starting is one I started on many years ago and for me, it is now time for a slight turn in the journey again. I have never been one to sit as part of the crowd. That is too noisy a place for me. I like the edge where there is some solitude, quiet and freedom to explore deeply.

What did my holiday teach me – it is the quiet and deep exploration that I was missing. The negative noises in the UK, driven by our government, had penetrated into my personal space. It is time to kick them out and get on with the deep learning and living again. As quoted in Margaret Wheatley’s book, Perseverance,

‘Love is the only emotion that expands intelligence’

Humberto Maturana

Onto the next stage of my systems thinking journey…….

The Invisibility of the Catalyst

I watched the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel again recently. Well, twice actually. I love it so much. It is wholesome and full of wisdom. A line in it that I have heard many times before is,

‘I came to pay my respects. There’s nothing I respect more than someone planting trees under whose shade they may never sit.’

It brought to mind the conversations I have had recently with other systems thinking colleagues about, ‘the invisibility of the catalyst’. Yes, that’s us a lot of the time. We observe, we seek to understand and we work with and within the work ecosystems we engage with day in day out. We take actions that no-one will ever know about. Make plans that no-one will hear about. We manoeuvre in and around things like an invisible ghost, nudging, encouraging, guiding. We put the foundations down for what might come next. The very solid grounding to enable the next stage of change and growth to thrive.

We talked about how that felt. There is no glory. There are no thanks. Most people do not even know what we are doing. Then, we move on, knowing that we have shuffled what needed shuffling, supported what needed supporting and sometimes, removed what needed removing. We walk away and start on something else. It is a win that feels like a fail. It feels like a fail because we have been conditioned to perceive a positive or a ‘win’ as something we get recognition and glory for. But a true win is when we have planted the seeds that few even know are there, but they may benefit from in the future.

My words of encouragement to anyone working as the invisible catalyst is to look inside of you to feel your ‘win’. The inner self is the only person who needs to know. Comfort yourself that you planted those trees. The trees that will grow and thrive for many years to come. The trees that may even support other trees and encourage the growth of even newer trees.

The connection between the person and the legacy is sometimes invisible to the eyes of many but it is never invisible inside of yourself.

We’re rational empathetic human beings, right?

We like to think we are but more often than not we fall into traps that prevent us from being rational and our empathy seems to float away. But why is being a rational, empathetic human being important in systems thinking? I didn’t coin the phrase, by the way. I came across it when reading a book by Joe Navarro www.jnforensics.com @navarrotells (Twitter) and I give full credit to him for the inspiration I gained from his writing and the way he shares his insights.

It struck a chord with me because I have done some intense work on systems change over the last few years. During this time, I have been supporting people to engage with systems thinking and systems thinking approaches. However, there was always something else in the room. Something more powerful. Something more relevant. Something I could not reach out and touch physically, but I felt it in terms of the energy vibration in the room. It was the connection of the people, bonding together through mutual trust and respect. It was embracing difference, vulnerability and a sense of self-worth. The more I connected with it, the more powerful it became. The dynamic felt different. It was warm and encompassing. I felt my heart rate slowing, my shoulders dropping and the muscles in my face relaxing.

It was a powerful experience but a one off, surely? Only, it wasn’t. It repeated itself every time. I came to realise that systems thinking approaches were useful, but certainly not everything. The more powerful energy in the room was the strength that was coming from within each and every one of us. It was the energy vibration that bonded us together.

When I read Joe Navarro’s work, I immediately thought, ‘This guy’s a systems thinker!’ I asked him if he had heard of systems thinking. He hadn’t. He said it was just about being a ‘rational, empathetic human’. Never before had such a simple phrase held so much meaning for me. It is easy, when you are embedded in systems thinking, to think that everything that might look or feel similar to the systems thinking you practice is systems thinking. Is it? Is the systems thinking label detrimental? Does it get in the way of the seemingly simple focus that we have been enacting in the work? It opened my eyes and brought a different dimension to the work. I thought back to every time I had worked in an effective team. It was when the people had a deep but relatively quiet inner confidence. They weren’t fighting a battle with their egos. They weren’t trying to be something they weren’t. They weren’t trying to be first or best or ‘the only one’. They were being confident, rational empathetic human beings, who dared to be vulnerable, nurtured each other and kept far removed from the traps of jealousy, criticalness and blame.

Why do we sweep things under the ‘systems thinking’ label? Is it the right thing to do? I don’t think so. What we have been working with is far simpler, yet deeper and somewhat more difficult in modern times. I am excited to see and feel where we go with it next.

Part of the Creating the Conditions for Change approach

Complex adaptive systems and the viable system model as complimentary frameworks

Back in 2018 I blogged about my work in public services and the complimentary nature of complex adaptive systems and the viable system model which I was bringing into my work (which was incorporated into the Creating the Conditions for Change workshop materials).

I was inspired by the writings of Angela Espinosa and Jon Walker in their book, ‘A Complexity Approach to Sustainability, theory and application’. It made me feel like I wasn’t going mad when, in my work, I believed that VSM and CAS were complimentary to each other.

Espinosa and Walker explain that complex adaptive systems are open systems whose elements interact dynamically and nonlinearly. They exhibit unpredictable behaviours, are affected by positive and negative feedback loops and co-evolve with their environment. They demonstrate ‘path dependence’ i.e. they have a history, an emergent structure, they self-organise when they are far from equilibrium, or at the edge of chaos. As a result of self-organisation, these systems exhibit emergent properties. They have learning networks, which are able to co-operate to manage their resources and develop adaptive behaviours. This co-operation emerges in the course of reciprocation strategies, rather than evolving from some sort of central control.

As I said in my blog in 2018, those versed in management cybernetics and the viable system model might say that whilst ‘cybernetics is about how systems regulate themselves, evolve and learn and its high spot is the question of how they organise themselves’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011, p11) aren’t they closed systems? A ‘closed system’ being one which has coherent, closed networks of relationships?’ So how can the VSM be useful in a situation that has the hallmarks of, and appears to be behaving somewhat like an open system?

Espinosa and Walker explain the beautifully complimentary view of the complex adaptive system and viable system frameworks working in harmony together. Viable systems are open to energy and information and co-evolve with their environment. However, they are organisationally closed. Their organisational patterns and evolution are self-referential, self-organising and self-regulated. However, when we observe from a cybernetic perspective, we can consider the viable system model but then we can extend our understanding by considering its dynamic interaction with the environment in which it sits and therefore the viable system’s characteristics as a complex adaptive system. ‘The CAS and the VSM are complimentary frameworks that explain issues of complexity management (VSM) and complex evolving behaviours (CAS)’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011. p15).

Think about that for a moment………. If groups like integrated teams and those working on systems change etc get this right, manipulating their reciprocation strategies (which features heavily in my Creating the Conditions for Change approach) may form a structural coupling that allows the organisations involved to induce change in a complimentary way.

Working with these insights helped me to create the workshop materials for Creating the Conditions for Change. I was already heavily working with the VSM. However, I had tipped early on from a point in my VSM work where I was considering management principles to where I was considering leadership and how the same principles apply to human beings and systems change, which was ongoing work from 2011. What is it the people need in complex situations? I started to consider the attenuation of fear and anxiety and the amplification of confidence and curiosity. I remembered the exceptional peer to peer support my work in pharmaceutical specials included. I remembered the self-organising and relationship building in my managerial roles. I remembered how, in my NHS work that when the relationships and interaction between teams was poor, everything suffered.

I believed back then, and I still believe now, that CAS and VSM are complimentary frameworks. I believe this because I got to where I am in my work via the viable system model and yet I work successfully in complex situations. Those who don’t know my work with the VSM often immediately assume I come from a world of CAS and living systems. That wasn’t where I started nor, indeed, where I start now.

What amazes me is the infighting between those who focus on VSM and those who focus on CAS. In my opinion, their quest to be seen as the best and their argument about what came first, systems thinking or complexity science misses the point. What is it that emerges when these two frameworks are used together? Something quite powerful, in my opinion.

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Optimising our energy using insights from the viable system model

(part of the ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach by Pauline Roberts, Systems Practitioner)

We’re tired, aren’t we? All of us. Exhausted, some of us. We live our lives at a pace that barely gives us time to stop and think. Barely gives us time to consider our own health and wellness. Barely gives us time to contemplate saying, ‘no’. The work I have been doing in systems change exemplifies this. People are tired. Exhausted. They want and need rest. There is little work-life balance. 9-5 Monday to Friday has become excruciatingly punishing. Tempers are fraught. Mental health is suffering. People are tired. When we are in this state, our energy is depleted by even the simplest of daily tasks. Our cognitive abilities are muted, and our enthusiasm and motivations dulled.

Over the years I have worked with Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model. I have applied it in a wide range of complex situations and the insights it gives me into the world of work, and indeed our lives, are never ending. From his neurocybernetic model of an enterprise, management principles emerged. From my academic learning and application of these principles, insights into change and systems change emerged. Inquiring into the complex situations I was faced with by exploring boundaries and purposes as conceptual constructs became the norm. Considering the perceptions of the observers of the systems in which I was embedded and observing became the norm and my insights grew.

Where Stafford Beer highlights to us that manipulation of complexity should be the task of the manager, I contemplated, ‘But what are the tasks of the leader? The system leader? The system changer?’ It was deep in contemplation about this when the insights from the viable system and wider work by Stafford Beer and the work of Ross Ashby started to come to light. In our management systems if we need to attenuate complexity, what is it we have to attenuate (and amplify) for the people in the system? For them to work without becoming burnt-out?

Fear! We need to attenuate fear. And anxiety, stress, fatigue, panic, anger, jealousy, sadness, lack of confidence and our ability to tumble into imposter syndrome. Only when we attenuate the negative elements of these emotions and reactions will we have enough energy to be able to effectively manipulate the possibilities of the environment around us to our benefit. Of course, not all fear is bad. Not all anxiety is bad. Not all anger and jealousy is bad. But it does become bad for us if it is overwhelmingly caused by our working conditions and by those who we interact with on a daily basis, who are in the same stage of depleted energy as ourselves.

Using the viable system model in my work, I will routinely contemplate variety attenuation in terms of implementing things that co-ordinate the work, so that the people doing the work are supported better. I contemplate the resources required and the perverse performance indicators that might be in place. I contemplate how we might balance the variety equation in terms of dealing with demand. In addition, my Creating the Conditions for Change approach focuses on how we can attenuate the negative emotions and/or feeling of burn-out we may experience in the workplace and how we can amplify our positive energy, so that we can engage with the complex situations we are embedded in to a greater and more effective degree.

In my work with Creating the Conditions for Change there is a strong focus on increasing confidence and reducing fear. A focus on peer-to-peer support, collaborations, storytelling, reciprocation strategies and relationships. On networks, communities, honesty, openness, trust and vulnerability. On sharing and making meaning together. On coaching one another and learning together. On humanity, authenticity and integrity. On self-referencing and identity.

It is not just the working environment we need to optimise. It is ourselves and our own health and wellness. It is these conditions that support us, nurture us and enable us to embrace our own humanness, that we need to optimise. It is the kindness we seek and want to give to others that we need to optimise. Only then will we have amplified our energy levels to be able to have effective energy exchanges with others and with the environment around us.  We are a major part of our work ecosystems. The same principles I would apply to any other elements of the work are what I would apply to us. For me, those insights came from both systems thinking in general and very largely cybernetics and the work of people like Stafford Beer and Ross Ashby. They existed in a different time and in a different context, but the same principles apply, in my opinion.

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Insights from the viable system model for developing my own system and ‘Creating the Conditions for Change©’

I recently mentioned to a group of students that I used the viable system model to develop my own personal system, incorporating my own personal development. They asked me to show them what I did and this is the session that I ran for them. It is not a refined session but more of a talk through of what I did, why and what insights it gave me. I also describe how the insights from my work of 15+ years with the viable system model, and particularly the work on developing my own personal system, turned into the building blocks for my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change©’ approach to making change and supporting systems change.

You can watch the video of the session on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXobE_5x9r8&t=10s